She provided all sorts of official mayhem as the regal Myrna Hartley in Universal’s fun 1941 horror effort The Black Cat, but the divine Gladys Cooper (1881-1971) truly created cinema’s evilest woman in a flick whose origins were dramatic not suspense filled. As Bette Davis’s manipulative, controlling mother, Mrs. Henry Dale, in the magnificent 1942 sob fest Now, Voyager, Cooper created a character whose black will was palpable. Determined to keep her meek daughter Charlotte subservient to her, Cooper invests Dale with an iron fisted bull headedness that makes audiences truly feel for her soft spoken offspring. Eventually, when Charlotte finally discovers the will to defy her mother, Cooper lets some admiration and playfulness seep into her characterization. But her commitment to Dale’s assessment that a late in life child must be a mother’s companion truly makes this one of the truest, scariest individuals ever brought to the screen.
Cooper, who was considered one of the most stunning women in England during her youth, brought a more modest haughtiness and a seeming nod to her fashion plate years with her presence, the previous year, in The Black Cat. Being cuckolded by Basil Rathbone’s sly and slimy Montague, of course, naturally sets her Myrna on a bad course and Cooper drips with casual venom as she causes (often deadly) problems for her co-stars, (the sweet) Anne Gwynne and (the impervious) Gale Sondergaard.
In her later years, Cooper graced such (often macabre) anthology shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. In fact, her trio of The Twilight Zone episodes are among some of the highest regarded of the series. The most famous of these, perhaps, is 1962’s Nothing in the Dark, in which a young and beautiful Robert Redford welcomed Cooper’s Wanda Dunn to the hereafter as a very appealing version of death. She, rightfully, enacts Dunn’s controlling fear and suspiciousness there. Thankfully, both The Outer Limits and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. utilized Cooper’s more mysterious charms to play mediums of varying degrees of authenticity in fun episodes of those series, as well.
But perhaps nothing establishes Cooper’s importance better than an appearance by her former co-star Davis on a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Reminiscing about Cooper, who had just died, Davis marvels about what a beautiful person, inside and out, she was. A sincere appreciation from one diva to another? Has a higher honor ever been established?
Until the next time – SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!